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Not-so-happy trails in Akron
The Akron Borough Council meeting started peacefully enough Monday night at the borough fire hall.
Council President Tom Murray began by calling for a motion to award a contract to Horst Excavating for phase one of the Warwick to Ephrata Rail Trail. That phase will extend from the end of the existing trail near Ephrata’s Pointview Avenue to a point 300 feet east of Akron’s Main Street. Phase one will be paid for by Ephrata Borough, Ephrata Township and Akron Borough.
Ephrata Borough and Township already approved the awarding of the contract, and had sent letters urging Akron Borough to also approve it. Council did so with no dissenting votes.
However, discussion of WERT phase two was not so peaceful. Murray opened the floor to discussion, and resident Don Reese was the first to take the microphone. Reese was given two minutes to state his views. Before his first minute was over, Reese was shouting at Kay McEllhenney, McEllhenney was shouting back at Reese and Tom Murray was shouting at both men to be civil.
It was over as quickly as it started. When Reese next had the microphone, nearly an hour later, after perhaps two dozen people had spoken their minds, he apologized for his outburst. He acknowledged that his words were fueled by his passion for his family and his meticulously maintained Miller Road property, which borders the trail. He feels both would be put at risk by a street-level rail trail crossing at Main Street.
Reese would rather see the trail pass through a tunnel under Main. The incline leading up to the street would put hikers and bikers on a level with his backyard, pierce his privacy, and detract from the attractiveness of his property.
McEllhenney thinks a tunnel would be too expensive, and would rather see inclines, one to the east of Main and one to the west, that would give hikers and bikers, and even people in wheelchairs, a way to cross the street.
Near the end of the meeting, after everyone had had their say, Murray asked for a show of hands. Would those in attendance rather have a tunnel under Main Street, or a street-level crosswalk? The crowd had thinned out by then, but about 40 of the people still there favored a tunnel and about 20 would rather cross at street level.
And while that was significant, Murray pointed out that the council members represented all 3,909 residents of the borough, and they would do what they determined was in the best interests of all the people.
Two recurring themes ran through the remarks of the people who walked to the front of the meeting room and took the microphone from Murray. Cost was one, safety was the other.
A couple of speakers mentioned the aesthetics of the rock face walls that line the cut where the Reading-Columbia Railroad tracks ran through Akron &tstr; under Main Street &tstr; until the trains stopped running some decades ago. The rock walls are substantial, pleasing to the eyes of at least some beholders, and may or may not be suitable as anchoring points for a bridge &tstr; rather than a tunnel or street level crossing &tstr; which was mentioned as a third alternative by at least two of the evening’s speakers.
“It would be shame to cover up those walls,” one speaker said. Matt Smith agreed. He is a banker living in Ephrata. He urged his neighbors on the hill to take a long range view of the project, and to preserve the history of this beautiful town. And, he said, a long incline would be a magnet for skateboarders.
Borough manager Dan Guers showed slides he’d prepared that addressed both the safety and cost issues. There were about a dozen photos of at-grade crossings for rail trail points in Warwick Township. All had warning signs, some had flashing lights, and none had any reportable accidents.
The comparative costs of the two ways to cross Main Street &tstr; above and below &tstr; were explained in a slide that showed the difference between a tunnel and a street level crossing would be in excess of $300,000, based on the best estimates now available.
Both estimates were provided by Horst Excavating. The tunnel would cost an estimated $577,000 and the street level crossing would be $244,000, although both figures could be higher or lower once the project is put out for bids.
Either option will call for an increase in the real estate millage rate. A street level crossing would increase the millage rate for an Akron home with a $150,000 assessed value from the present 2.5 mills to 2.68. The tax would go from $375 a year to $402. The tunnel approach would result in a millage increase from the present 2.5 mills to 2.87. The real estate tax on that same $150,000 assessed value would go from the present $375 to $430. The annual difference between the two approaches would be $28 on a property with an assessed value of $150,000.
There was an important caveat with the street level crossing, a point which was brought out by two contractors in attendance. The fill required to bring the trail up to a level with Main Street, would require lots of clean dirt. One of the contractors felt the cost of the fill could add $200,000 or more to the street level crossing cost.
Guers explained that the Horst numbers were based on the availability of free fill. He anticipated that once word spread that Akron had a site where contractors could dump excavated fill at no charge, his phone would be ringing off the hook.
Some comments by people at the meeting were:
Tanya Weaver: “I’m in favor of a tunnel. Let’s put politics aside and consider the safety of our children first.”
Bob Hoffman: “It’s almost unbelievable that people think it’s not safe to cross Main Street, but it’s okay to cross all the other streets that are along the way.”
Cheyenne Stauffer: “I live on Miller Road and a street level crossing would bring people virtually into our back yard. I’m concerned about my children. And 20 years from now, if we go under the road, we’ll be patting ourselves on the back. Traffic will increase between now and then. We need to think about that.”
George Wolf: I’ve been on borough council and I’ve been mayor of Akron. I know what your council is dealing with and we owe them our thanks. I lived on Main Street for 35 years, close to where the crossing would be, and I can tell you that cars do not go 30 miles an hour on Main Street. They go faster. A tunnel will cost me money, but I am in favor of it.”
Brad Rettew: “Safety is a big issue. I’m concerned that if there’s a tunnel under Main Street, and if something happens to somebody on the trail, emergency vehicles might not be able to get to the site as quickly as they could if there were a street level crossing.”
LuAnne Mikos: “The trail runs behind our property on Bomberger Road, and there is an access road to the borough pumping station beside our property. I’m concerned that that road will be used as an access to the trail. There would be foot traffic, and there is no place to park.”
Chris Phan: “In my family, if we don’t have the funds to do something, we wait until we do have the funds. I think here in Akron, we need to think about raising money with fund drives or things like support from businesses. I think we should have the money in place before we go through with this.”
Glen Beiler: As much as I personally favor a tunnel, I appreciate the fact that council is not going to take a vote tonight. This does not have to be completed before the end of 2015. I would like to see the rail trail committee consider alternate ways to fund the project. We need to slow down.”
Akron’s mayor John McBeth suggested that a group of concerned citizens be given approval to meet and consider the rail trail options.